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A top-notch concerto soloist is not necessarily the best recital soloist

The San Francisco debut of the Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili was one of the memorable concert events in 2012. It was all the more impressive for having taken place in January and was still resonating in my memory in December. She performed Maurice Ravel’s G major piano concerto with Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in a particularly well-balanced account in which the nuances of both her piano work and Ravel’s keen sense of instrumentation were allowed to shine in equal measure. When she returned to Davies the following October to perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 18 concerto in C minor (his second) with Vladimir Jurowski conducting SFS, the results were not quite as splendid; but there was no doubting the multidimensionality of her technique and her nuanced expressiveness of Rachmaninoff’s thematic material.

Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili
courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

In that context one can appreciate why a solo recital by the pianist behind the most memorable concert of 2012 should be one of the most anticipated events of the current season. That recital was presented last night by Chamber Music San Francisco in the Marines’ Memorial Theatre. Buniatishvili came with a bold program of four compositions, each of which was intensely demanding. Each half of the concert began with the extended durational scale of a full sonata, Franz Liszt’s B minor sonata, played as a single uninterrupted movement, in the first half and the four movements of Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 35 (“Funeral March”) in B-flat minor in the second. Each of these was coupled with a work in which the energy level was compacted into a significantly shorter duration. The Liszt was followed by Ravel’s solo piano arrangement of “La Valse;” and Chopin’s four movements were followed by three movements of music that Igor Stravinsky extracted from his score for the ballet “Petrushka.” By all rights this promised to be a program that would display the full scope of Buniatishvili’s technical and interpretive skills.

Sadly, about the only skill that seemed to occupy her attention was her ability to play as fast as possible. By the time the program had reached the intermission, I was trying to figure out who might have inspired her to play that way. My first thought was Michael Schumacher, but I realized that one cannot win a Formula One race by driving as fast as possible all the time. I eventually settled on Mikhail Kalashnikov, best known for arming the world with the AK-47. Indeed, there were so many wrong notes in Buniatishvili’s executions of her selections, that it was almost impossible to keep the “spray and pray” technique of automatic weaponry out of my head. I had hoped to come away with the feeling that at least one of the four composers she had selected would find a better comfort zone, but all those virtues and balance and nuance that she had brought to Ravel’s piano concerto were disconcertingly absent from “La Valse.”

Indeed, the only relief from the unrelenting bombast came when Buniatishvili took her first encore, Wilhelm Kempff’s G minor arrangement of the Minuet movement from George Frideric Handel’s HWV 434 keyboard suite (also the final movement of the HWV 375 flute sonata in E minor). This was more than a little heavy on the syrupy side, but it provided the only sustained calm of the evening. It was then blown away by the second encore, the final movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 83 sonata in B-flat major, the second of his “War” sonatas. Prokofiev gave this movement the tempo marking “Precipitato;” but Buniatishvili went beyond precipitous to take the music even further over the top than Prokofiev would have dared to imagine.

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